Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Movie review: Django Unchained


Quentin Tarantino took little time to become an adjective. After his game-changing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, "Tarantino-esque" soon became a catch-all for movies of outlandish violence, grim humour, elongated dialogue, faded stars revived, over-exposed faces reinvented, and interwoven narratives all matched to a reliably groovy soundtrack.

Tarantino's films riffed on B-cinema history, turning obscure guilty-pleasure flicks - those with a "-ploitation" suffix a speciality - into movies that always ran a fine line between thrilling and indulgent, pastiche and homage.

And so it is, mostly, with Django Unchained.

It's a film which ticks most of the above boxes, but often the same box too many times. It's one with a colourful cast relishing those pages of dialogue, but lead Jamie Foxx, as the avenging ex-slave of the title is an unexceptionable presence among the scene-stealers - among them Leonardo DiCaprio as sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as his butler Stephen, a character just as unnerving as the actor's hitman Jules in Pulp Fiction.

And it's a film of epic length and high saddle miles for its leads. But that's not alleviated by Tarantino's usual plot juggling. Here, his screenplay is playing it straight with a single linear storyline. Though what it lacks in narrative ingenuity, or indeed pace, it sure makes up for an endless exhausting set of possible endings.

It is, of course, Tarantino's second foray into period history coming straight after the brilliantly bonkers revenge-of-the-Jews World War Two rewrite, Inglourious Basterds.

Django Unchained is set mostly in the antebellum South two years before the American Civil War though it spends a good deal of its first half out on the prairie.

In cinematic history terms, it's reconstituting Spaghetti Westerns with slave-schlock films of the 70s. And intentionally or not, its Sergio Leone pasta-cowboy cool is sauced by Mel Brook's 1974 classic yeeha spoof Blazing Saddles - a film which got laughs from the very idea of a black cowboy (as well as KKK idiots and German accents).

Christoph Waltz, who played the chatty SS colonel in Basterds is here as Dr. King Schutlz. He's a bounty hunter who's sort of a kindly Teutonic Doc Holliday who, having unshackled Django while getting the movie's body count off to a flying start, then mentors him in the ways of the West. He agrees to help him find his wife who is now owned by the cruel Mr Candie.

Which might sound simple but this is not a film to cut to the chase at any time in its near three hours on screen. Much of it Tarantino spends showing how slavery was, like, so much worse than Gone with The Wind.

But really Django Unchained is no more about America's slavery shame than Basterds contemplated The Holocaust. It's all there to stoke Django's eventual avenging hellfire, which once unleashed makes for a grimly satisfying, truly Tarantino-esque conclusion.

It's just a pity his bloody movie takes so bloody long to tick all those boxes.

Stars: 3.5/5
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson
Rating: R16 (graphic violence, offensive language)
Running time: 165 mins
Verdict: Tarantino's Spaghetti Western, too heavy on the sauce

- NZ Herald

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